Tennessee Modernism: Hamilton National Bank by Robert B. Church III

Structure: Hamilton National Bank, Bearden Branch
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Robert B. Church III
Date: 1974
Story: Banking, as we know it, has been around for centuries. In the early days of what we might call “modern banking” (think the 1800s), banks wanted to project stability and safety. Their architecture reflected that goal (see, for example, the East Tennessee National Bank building below).

As the 20th century rolled around (and as money movement got safer and more streamlined), banks began modernizing their business practices and, along with it, their architecture. Hamilton National Bank was an East Tennessee bank that went full in on architectural modernity.

Created around 1930 as the Hamilton National Bank of Knoxville, the bank began an ambitious project in the 1950s to build new branches throughout East Tennessee. The branches were designed by architects from the community in which the branch was built.

Since it was their main hub of operation, Knoxville was special to Hamilton National Bank. Throughout the 1950s, they constructed a handful of tasteful mid-century banks, each one unique.

But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Hamilton National Bank designed what this humble architecture blogger considers their best work. They hired Knoxville firm McCarty Bullock Church Holsaple (now McCartyHolsapleMcCarty) to design them a bank. The firm tapped their principal Robert B. (Bob) Church III to helm the project.

Photo courtesy of Doug McCarty (of MHM)

Church designed a stunning building which featured a precast concrete fascia (with the bank’s name etched into it) and four brick pillars at each corner which, due to the fact they weren’t structural, gave the roof a bit of a floating appearance.

According to architectural historian George Dodds, the bank was “remarkably civic-minded”: Hamilton National Bank asked the architect to design a “basement meeting room… that could also be used by local community groups and operate separately from the bank, even when the bank was not open.” Imagine that!

The bank received much praise, including a feature in Architectural Record (August 1974).

Church’s talent was on full display inside the bank, where cool slate floors contrasted sharply with a warm wood ceiling.

Photo courtesy of Doug McCarty (of MHM)

Today’s tale, however, ends with architectural tragedy. As time went on, the structure would change hands many times. In its last iteration, the building held First Tennessee Bank’s financial advisors. And while those advisors probably offered good advice on money matters, they had no good advice to give when First Tennessee Bank (the entity) decided to tear the building down and replace it with a building as generic as the strip mall within which it is located. Let us watch the progression happen.





I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Tennessee Modernism: Medical Building by Mann & Harrover

Structure: Medical building
Location: Union City, Tennessee
Architect: Mann & Harrover
Date: 1953
Tidbit: Built for a group of eight doctors, this medical building was designed to give each of the doctors’ offices light and views. The waiting room (above) featured an exposed steel-frame cage with its “three roof bays framed with diamond-shaped steel trusses diagonally crossing each other and interlocking at the crossing point.” (PA July 1960)

Eventually the building was demolished to make way for a more modern medical building (pictured below).

Tennessee Modernism: Koprowski House by James Embrey

Structure: Joseph Koprowski House
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Architect: James A. Embrey
Date: 1970
Tidbit: In the mid 1960s, violinist Joseph Boleslav Koprowski moved to Gatlinburg to become the concert master for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. He had Gatlinburg architect James Embrey design him a house up on the one of the tallest hills in Gatlinburg. Unfortunately, the 2016 fires burned this house down. Also, I apologize for the tiny photos but they’re all that’s left 😞

Tennessee Modernism: Livingston House by Richard Neutra

Structure: Philip Livingston House
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Architect: Richard Neutra
Date: 1955
Story: Sometimes, when you see a marvelous mid-century house, your heart starts to flutter. If it flutters too much, you’ll need to go see a cardiologist. Now, as luck would have it, the owner of the house we’re featuring in this blog was indeed a cardiologist, his name was Dr. Philip Livingston.

Now Dr. Livingston (I presume) was one of Chattanooga’s best doctors. His wife, Jean, was a big player in state politics. So, being the power couple they were, they decided to build a custom house. They turned to the man, the myth, the legend Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually, however, things with Wright didn’t work out. One wonders if, like the owners of the Shaw House, the Livingston’s found their conversation with Wright to be “considerably one-sided”?

In any event, they ended up deciding to work with architect Richard Neutra. Many, many words have been written about architect Richard Neutra. He was a Viennese architect who worked for master architects in Europe before coming to the U.S., doing a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright, and then making his way to Los Angeles. He would go on to design some of the most iconic mid-century houses of the era, many of which you’ve probably seen. If you want a good introduction to Neutra, read the Los Angeles Conservancy’s write-up on him.

Neutra’s works were focused in-and-around Southern California. Outside of California, Neutra only designed a handful of houses. Very few are in the south, and this is his only Tennessee design. The original budget for the house was $30,000 (~$288k today), but the final cost ended up being closer to $100,000 (~$961k today). That exorbitant amount of investment got the Livingston house some very special attention from Neutra.

The house itself was chock full of unique features such as a darkroom (Dr. Livingston was an amateur photographer) and an ahead-of-its-time floating TV stand.

Neutra was a talented watercolor artist, and he often sketched + painted the houses he designed. At some point, he painted two watercolors of the Livingston House.

Unfortunately, as often happens, the house decomposed for many years until a developer bought + razed it in 2015.

If you want to read more about this fantastic space, the late Gavin Townsend spent copious amounts of time researching + writing about it, read about it over on the SAH Archipedia. This post (and this blog, probably) owes its existence to Gavin and the amazing work he did during his lifetime.

Tennessee Modernism: Fiser House by Hubert Bebb

Structure: Fiser House
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Hubert Bebb
Date: 1961
Tidbit: In the early 1960s, Knoxville, Tennessee had a prominent home builder named John Fiser. Joe had always wanted a lake house, so when the time came, he turned to notable Gatlinburg architect Hubert Bebb and had him design a gargantuan 4,600, tri-level, hexagonal-shaped house overlooking Fort Loudon Lake (later additions would bring the house’s square footage up to around 10,000 sq ft). Sparing no expense, John hired Jim Cleveland (an architect-designer) to design + decorate the interior with imported fixtures from Spain, wool carpets, and a Robert R. Bushong screenprint (for the focal point of the main room). The ink wasn’t even dry on Bebb + Cleveland’s plans before John began building the house (he was a builder, after all). The stonework alone took 6 months! Unfortunately, the house didn’t transition well into the modern era. The house itself was neat but, according to the Fisers, didn’t have all of the amenities one would want from a modern house. Although they put time and energy into seeing whether a rehab was feasible, they decided that it would have been too costly, and the house was demolished in 2012. The good news, though, is that much of the original house’s materials were used in a new build on the site. That said, we bid you RIP, hexagonal house.

Google Satellite view 2010
Google Satellite view 2013

Tennessee Modernism: Fairhill by Cliff May

Structure: Stewart Henslee House (called “Fairhill”)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Architect: Cliff May
Date: 1949
Story: In the early 1940s, a Knoxville, Tennessee furniture salesman (Stewart Henslee) joined up with the Navy. He was stationed at Naval Base Coronado (NBC), a base that sits on the island of Coronado, California (an island just off the coast of San Diego, California). While stationed there, he met + fell in love with one of the Coronado residents, Miss Marjorie Walbridge. In 1942, the two of them were married on the West Coast.

Two years later (1944), Stewart and Marjorie purchased 384 acres of property that formerly belonged to R.L. Sterchi. The land, out in West Knoxville, was extremely rural and came with a 40-acre lake.

Stewart Henslee (left) holds young Marjorie, Marjorie Henslee (right) holds Stewart Jr

Now, since Marjorie was from Southern California, she was quite taken with the styles of architecture that were native to her home state. Styles that evoked the old ranches that used to dot the arid California land. Stewart was amenable towards the style as well, having been stationed in California for some time. So the couple commissioned up-and-coming California architect Cliff May to customize one of his designs for them. If you’re not familiar with Cliff May, here’s a great primer on him. Cliff May was known for designing California ranch-style houses, so it only seemed right that the Henslee’s had him alter one of his California ranch-style plans for their new Knoxville residence.

The photo below is a plan Cliff May called the “Postwar Demonstration House,” and it bears a striking resemblance to the house May ended up customizing for the Henslee Family. It’s quite possible they visited this house (or a house much like it) in San Diego as Cliff May was heavily promoting his houses in the Southern California area.

© University of California, Santa Barbara
These are the actual blueprints of the Henslee’s house

The Henslee’s called their new home “Fairhill.”

Marjorie Henslee photographed from the porch of her Cliff May-designed home, “Fairhill”

Unfortunately, things did not stay fair on that hill for very long. Given both of their wealth and status (Stewart was the head of the Fowler Brothers Furniture Co, Marjorie came from a wealthy family due to her great uncle helping create the Libby-Owens-Ford glass company) the couple went through a very public divorce in early 1963. Later that year, Stewart died of a heart attack. The house itself stood up on it’s hill as the land around it slowly got carved up and sold. The house was eventually demolished around 2012, and to this day the house’s former site is just an empty dirt lot.

Another one bites the dust